Essays in Understanding the Bible (5): What Kind of Literature?
In this series of essays, Helen Parry explores some basic principles for understanding the Bible. The essays are posted monthly on the LICC website, normally on the third Monday of the month. Since interpretation is not a dry academic exercise but is essential to a proper use of Scripture, each essay is followed by questions for reflection (and discussion with others, where applicable), and suggestions for action.
‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward,
Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’
‘600 cavalrymen massacred in attack.’
‘Here lies James Brown, 1830-1854.
Killed in action November 1854.
Three different records of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War – a poem by Tennyson, a newspaper headline, and a tombstone. A single event, three styles of writing. One records the bare facts, one gives a dramatic, atmospheric description, and one commemorates an individual.
In Exodus, we read: ‘Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the Lord swept them into the sea.’ This straightforward account (14:27-28) contrasts with the exultant song of Moses and Miriam (15:9-10):
‘The enemy boasted,
“I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them...”
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.’
The Psalmist (106:11-13) places the event in the context of the Israelites’ subsequent faithlessness:
‘The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises and sang his praise.
But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his counsel.’
And it reappears in the argument of the letter to the Hebrews (11:29): ‘By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.’ This great escape was accomplished through faith; but, the writer argues, none of the Old Testament heroes of faith received what had been promised. Why? Because ‘God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect’ (11:39-40).
Again, a single event, treated differently, at different times, in different styles and for different purposes.
The Bible contains 66 books, written over a period of 1,000 years by writers of different backgrounds, different experiences and different personalities, and for various purposes. Their overall purpose, of course is the same – to explore the majestic theme of God’s dealings with humankind. But their individual callings and specific reasons for writing differ vastly, as do the forms and styles in which they wrote.
Among the many types of literature in the Bible, we may list: narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, law, gospel, parable, letters, and apocalyptic. It is this variety that makes the Bible such a rich and rounded book. It speaks into our minds and our hearts. In a sense, it reflects the nature of the Gospel itself, the many-faceted mystery of the Word made flesh.
This we must always keep in view. The Word of God to us does not consist of dry propositions and categorical commands. Rather, it is God’s self-revelation to humankind, presented to us in various forms.
Sixteen of the books consist entirely of prophecy, and prophecy appears in many other books also. This is one of the most complex and controversial genres in the Bible. Our first problem, perhaps, is that we tend to think of prophecy simply as prediction of the future. That is how the word is commonly used in everyday parlance. Speaking to Moses, the Lord described the role of a prophet: ‘I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell [the people] everything I command him’ (Deuteronomy 18:18). Indeed, when Moses died his epitaph was: ‘Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ (Deuteronomy 34:10). So all the precise and systematic commands in the Pentateuch – whether or not actually through Moses himself – may be regarded as ‘prophetic’.
The role of the prophet was to speak to the people on God's behalf. ‘Thus says the Lord’, they cry; ‘this is what the Lord says’. Most of what the Lord says in the Old Testament is self-revelation, encouragement and warning. God’s revelation of his character, and his love and concern for his people are, of course, of universal validity. How his character and his concern for his people will play out in practice differ hugely from one generation and situation to another.
This is one of the problems we face when reading prophecy: How much of this can we apply directly to ourselves? How far may we reinterpret it into our own circumstances? Or does a certain passage have nothing to say to us at all?
The biblical prophets speak first and foremost to the people of their day. Warnings of judgment were spoken to those who were disobedient, who worshipped idols, who cared primarily for themselves while neglecting and abusing the weak and the poor. Promises of deliverance were spoken to those in captivity, to urge them to remain faithful to God, and assure them that they were not forgotten, and that God’s promised blessing to them would be fulfilled.
The Lord spoke to the people of Israel in captivity through Ezekiel: ‘I will bring you from the nations, and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered – with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath’ (20:24). The specific reference to the historical context here is unmistakable.
The more specific a prophecy seems, the more likely it is to have a specific historical reference. It would be very unwise to try to wrest a ‘word from the Lord for me today’ out of such verses. Would any of us, for example, take to ourselves Jesus’ prophetic words to Peter: ‘Before the cock crows you will deny me three times’ (John 13:38)?
Many of the Old Testament prophecies do, however, have two or three layers of application. The famous ‘Christmas’ text, ‘therefore the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son’ (Isaiah 7:14), is followed two verses later with ‘Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste’. The ‘Servant songs’ of Isaiah 42 to 53 similarly look in two directions. In some, the servant is Israel; in others it is clearly the Messiah, and in others again it seems to be both. Another example is Ezekiel 37:1-14. The prophecy of the valley of dry bones uses resurrection language, which points to the very end of the age; but its immediate reference is to the return of the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC.
Most prophecy is written in poetic form. And this creates further questions for the reader. The interpretation of poetic forms and figurative language will be the subject of the next essay.
That prediction was always perceived as a part of prophecy is evident from Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18:21-22: ‘You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken’. Most predictive prophecy, of course, can only be evaluated some time after it is given. Indeed, some of it will never be verifiable until the time comes when we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the meantime, we need to use our common sense, humbly acknowledging the limitations of our understanding.
And the apocalyptic prophecies (those concerning the end times) are also highly symbolic. Deep divisions within the church have arisen over the centuries about the manner, timing and chronology of Christ’s return. Scripture is not concerned with these matters: rather, the Lord speaks through the prophets to encourage and warn people and to urge them to be steadfast and watchful.
Another problem that confronts us when reading prophecy is the lack of apparent continuity. Sometimes there is a clear sequence of ideas, for a whole chapter or several chapters at a time, as in the prophecy of Haggai. More often, however, prophecies given on separate occasions are printed continuously. These ‘oracles’, as they are known, need to be read and understood as self-contained, not necessarily related in any way to the oracles before and after them. Often, but not always, they are printed as separate paragraphs, sometimes under headings added by the editor for the sake of the reader.
What kind of literature is this? is one of the key questions we must ask ourselves as we read the Bible. This is more a matter of common sense than of academic literary criticism. Learning to ask questions of the text is the key to the front door.
For personal reflection:
Read Philippians 2:1-13. Consider how the poetic passage (thought possibly to be a very early Christian hymn) contributes to Paul’s argument. Go through verses 6-11 in worship, and pray that its wonderful truths may illuminate and shape your own daily living.
For group discussion:
Read Psalm 95:7b-11, Matthew 7:24-27, and James 2:14-18. Discuss the similarities and differences between them, including the literary form in which they are written. How do the different forms contribute to the writer's purpose?
Watch a variety of programmes on television (perhaps a soap, reality TV, the news, a ‘docudrama’ and a documentary), and ask yourself, or discuss with family or friends, how the format is used to present a theme, and what the purpose (or agenda) is behind it.
There are currently no comments for this article.